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September 27, 2020

School districts brace for looming budget cuts

Districts asked to cut 10 percent as State awaits federal help

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 14 released an updated state budget that calls for a 10 percent cut to school districts across the state.

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Pajaro Valley Unified School District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said that the district is looking at a $19.18 million slash.

Watsonville/Aptos/Santa Cruz Adult Education Director Nancy Bilicich estimated that her department will have to cut $300,000.

District officials have not yet outlined where the cuts will fall. The Board of Trustees will likely discuss the issue at its May 27 meeting.

The news was not all bad, Rodriguez said. Newsom has reduced by $2.7 million the amount the district is required to put into employee retirement plans. That money will instead come from the state.

The governor also increased funding to PVUSD’s special education department by $1.3 million.

In addition, the district is set to receive $3.97 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which was passed by Congress on March 27.

Now, Rodriguez and educators across the U.S. are hoping for additional help from the  Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which would provide nearly $1 trillion for local and state government.

The bill could stave off some if not all of the education cuts, but President Donald Trump and Senate leaders have both called that bill “dead on arrival.”

“I would encourage people to work with the senators—not only California senators but also senators throughout the nation to encourage the passage of the HEROES act,” Rodriguez said. “That’s going to be extremely important for us and would provide a solution to the large deficit that California is seeing.”

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said that the budget is particularly troubling for school employees as districts prepare to scour their budgets for places to cut.

“It’s important to note that 85-90 percent of a district’s budget is in salaries and benefits,” Sabbah said. “To make an 8 percent reduction, has to come from there.”

Sabbah said that the biggest concern as school districts look to reopen is the increased costs of doing so. This includes screening students for Covid-19 symptoms, the employees needed to do so and the equipment needed.

“The kind of protocols and environment we have to work in is going to cost more money, not less,” he said. “So to envision and to plan for the reopening of schools with these additional safety precautions that have to be in place is daunting. Those dollars are coming from the same pot of money that just got reduced by 8 percent.”

Santa Cruz County’s 10 school districts must submit a budget plan to the county office by June 30.

Newsom said his budget aims to close a $54 billion budget gap caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and channels scarce financial resources into the state’s “most essential priorities,” which he lists as public health, public safety and public education.

The PVUSD Board of Trustees on April 29 approved a proposal to lay off more than two-dozen employees, which is likely to be the first step in a series of cuts aimed at weathering the impending recession.

“Covid-19 has caused California and economies across the country to confront a steep and unprecedented economic crisis—facing massive job losses and revenue shortfalls,” Newsom said. “Our budget today reflects that emergency.”

The May revision prioritizes $4.4 billion in federal funding to address learning loss and other issues exacerbated by the Covid-19 school closures this spring. 

These funds will be used by districts to run summer programs and other programs that address equity gaps that were widened during the school closures, Newsom said.

The funds will also be used to make necessary modifications so that schools are prepared to reopen in the fall and help support parents’ ability to work. The May revision also preserves the number of state-funded child care slots and expands access to childcare for first responders.

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